Anyone who has tried to make a body composition change through nutrition can sympathize with the following statement: “I’m eating less than I ever have, burning more than I ever have, and I’m still not losing weight!” In some cases, people might find themselves gaining weight, even after “eating less” and “burning more.” In this article, we’re going to look at 4 possible explanations for this incredibly frustrating predicament that many people have experienced.
Reason #1: Calorie and macronutrient estimates on food labels can be wildly inaccurate.
Whenever we look at the calorie and macronutrient content on the back of white rice, or the package of chicken breast that was just purchased, most of us assume that the information is 100% accurate. This assumption is unfortunately incorrect.
The FDA allows for about a 20% range of error on what’s actually in the food you’re consuming. This means that if you’re eating a portion of chicken breast that, according to the nutrition facts is 100 calories, you could actually be eating 80 or 120 calories instead.
Furthermore, this range of error in calories also applies to the macronutrient makeup of the specified food, meaning that mandarin orange that’s only supposed to have 10 grams of carbs/sugar, could end up having 12 instead.
This is important to remember, especially for those of us who religiously log our food. While it may look like we’re hitting our caloric and macronutrient goals on a daily basis, there’s no telling how accurate those numbers actually are. Given the FDA’s regulation, we could be nearly 20% under our daily caloric and macronutrient goal, or up to 20% over.
Whenever the information we use to track our food intake is inaccurate, it becomes easy to believe that we are eating less than we might actually be eating.
Reason #2: Your energy needs might be lower than you think they are.
If you’re reading this, chances are at some point in your fitness journey, you’ve elected to use an online calorie calculator. All of these calculators use a multitude of different formulas that take into account your age, height, sex, body weight, and activity level to determine your daily caloric needs.
What’s the problem with these calculators? An equation can’t accurately predict your daily caloric needs.
For example, you put your body weight, height, age, and sex into a calorie calculator. The next piece of information you’d need is your activity level. Most of these calculators break down activity levels on a spectrum from something like sedentary, to incredibly active.
Now, you may consider yourself incredibly active, however, humans tend to overestimate how much they actually do. Very active to you might mean exercising 3 times a week, at a low intensity. However, from the calculator's perspective, being very active might mean walking 3 miles a day and training relatively intensively for 5-6 days a week.
When you put subjective opinion into an equation, the level of accuracy you can expect diminishes further. This is why when we use online calculators like the ones described above, we can very easily overestimate the number of calories we need to achieve our goals.
Reason #3: You’re burning less energy than your fitness tracker, or subjective perspective of your activity suggests.
Related to reason #2, not only are we bad at figuring out how many calories we need, we, and our fitness tracking devices, are also pretty bad at determining how many calories we burn.
In a study conducted at Stanford University, it was discovered that fitness trackers (Apple Watch, Fitbit Surge, etc.) were incredibly inaccurate at measuring calories burned. The most reliable tracker of the bunch had an average error rate of 27%, while the least reliable tracker had an average error rate of 93%! This means that if your device said you burned 1,000 calories, you could have possibly only burnt 70.
When our most reliable tools for tracking energy expenditure are inaccurate almost 25% of the time, it makes it quite simple for us to overestimate what our energy balance actually looks like.
Reason #4: You might have a slower metabolism than you think because you might not have as much lean mass as you think.
Unsurprisingly, the multitude of scales on the market that claim to measure and track your body composition are also quite inaccurate.
Most of the scales that you’ll encounter attempt to measure your body composition via a method called bioelectrical impedance (BIA). A low amperage electrical current is sent from one electrode (usually under your foot) to another electrode (usually under your other foot). The scale then calculates how much body fat, muscle mass, and water is in your body based upon the data it receives from the electrodes.
The issue with this method of measurement of various scales is that there’s no way to account for the various muscle densities and hydration levels of the people who use them. Similarly to reason 2, trying to predict things about human physiology with equations simply doesn’t work as well as needed.
The only truly accurate way to measure someone’s body composition is to remove all the fat and muscle from their body and weigh each on a scale. However, one would have to be dead for that to happen. Dying isn’t something we’d want to do just to figure out what our body is made of!
So now that you know why it's possible to gain weight in the midst of what seems like caloric restriction, let's talk about how to find success, despite these roadblocks.
1: Be less rigid and ‘exact’ about measuring your nutrient intake. Be more intuitive instead.
Rather than getting consumed in the measuring and weighing of your food (which is unnecessary unless you have very intensive body composition goals) use your hand to determine the quantity of food you should eat instead.
Unless you’re competing in a physique sport, or you get paid to look a certain way (maybe you’re a model or actor) exact macronutrient and caloric prescriptions are unnecessary.
Consuming the following at every meal is a much more intuitive way to go about measuring your intake. These measurements also allow for easy troubleshooting:
- 1-2 palm-sized portions of protein
- 1-2 cupped hand-sized portions of starchy carbohydrates
- 1-2 fist-sized portions of vegetables
- 1-2 thumb-sized portions of fat
If you follow these principles and see you’re still not losing weight, maybe reduce your fat intake to 1 thumb-sized portion at every meal. Losing muscle mass? Up your palm-sized protein portions to 2-3 per meal. Feeling a little more hungry than normal? Add in a fist-sized portion of veggies to every meal. The ease of correction using these principles allows for a lot more progress to be made on your body composition goals.
2: Rather than worrying about how many exact calories you need, rely on your own instinctual hunger cues instead.
Eating ‘by the numbers’ often correlates with us not listening to our body’s instinctual hunger cues. For individuals trying to gain weight, every meal is often a stomach-filling frenzy that usually feels a little too satisfying. For individuals trying to lose weight, every meal often leaves them hungry for more. When we begin to listen to our natural hunger cues instead, we let our body’s beautiful system of regulation do its job.
If you’re trying to lose weight, every time you have a meal, eat until you feel about 80% full. Our body has a delayed satiety response, so when we ‘feel’ as though we’re 80% satisfied we’re usually less than full, which is what we want in order to lose weight. Don’t worry, your body’s satiety response will eventually catch up and you won’t be walking around feeling hungry all the time. If that does happen, remember to add in more cruciferous vegetables to ‘fill’ you up!)
3: Rather than trying to burn X amount of calories, aim to move purposefully every day
Forget trying to ‘burn’ 1,000 calories during your morning garage HIIT workout. Exercise purposefully, but also move purposefully every day. Going on a 10-minute walk after every meal, or a longer 30-60 minute walk every day are great ways to purposefully move and to get more NEAT (nonexercise activity thermogenesis) every day. Read more about NEAT here.
4: If you really want to get an idea of how your metabolism is working, pick one testing method, and test it consistently
At Central Athlete, we test our clients’ body composition using the InBody USA body composition analyzer. We have them test under the exact same conditions, at the same time every time. Having consistent variables around testing is incredibly important. While we likely won’t be able to accurately measure what their body composition and basal metabolic rate actually are, we can measure the trends that both are following. The trends observed over time are much more valuable in understanding your personal energy expenditure. This is necessary to ensure your nutrition plan is leading you in the right direction and can be adjusted as needed.
The principles associated with body composition changes listed above are quite simple. However, simple doesn’t always mean easy. If you have been struggling to lose weight, gain weight, or improve your performance in the gym, reach out to a Central Athlete coach today. We can help you make your body composition goals a reality!